Having been banned from the ceramics room on his first day of an Art Foundation course at Bournville, Keith Harrison understandably had no aspirations of becoming a ceramicist in his fledgling stages as a visual artist. However, it seems that this authoritarian experience probably challenged his innate perceptions of what this sort of practitioner could be and therefore led him to confront the conventional notions of fine art ceramics. As a result, this has become the key factor which underlies his work as an artist.
Harrison was born in West Bromwich but grew up in Birmingham. He studied on a BA Industrial Design course in Cardiff; later switching to Ceramics, largely due to a course he completed during his initial BA. Following this, he undertook an MA in Ceramics and Glass at the RCA, where he graduated in 2002.
I am interested in the opportunities that clay offers in its different states; as a liquid, plastic and solid, and ultimately, the potential for the direct physical transformation of clay from a raw state utilising industrial and domestic electrical systems in a series of time-based public experiments.
The merging of ceramics with performance, ‘action’ and other forms of sculpture and installation, has allowed Harrison’s work to create and occupy a largely distinctive position within contemporary visual art. A vital attention of the work, which is referred to in the previous quote, is a temporal dimension that enables it to be structured and culminate around the delivery of an event, which is integral to the artist’s foremost sensibilities.
After his graduation in 2002, Keith developed various processes and ideas for a number of live public art events. These experimentations have utilised portable household appliances, audio equipment, materials, objects and systems associated with an industrial and domestic base, and the staging of live firings of his ceramic works. These have taken place in various venues such as a living room, science laboratory, café and not-for-profit artist run spaces in Brighton and London. ‘The physical transformation of clay from a raw state’ into something fixed and synthesised, is central to Harrison’s very intentionally somatic process of presentation.
Many large scale works have been produced for public galleries by using the given space to produce these site specific, time based works. Over recent years he has exhibited in venues such as the V&A, Jerwood Space, Camden Arts Centre and mima in Middlesbrough.
His scrutinising of different conceptions of the firing process, led him to use unconventional heat generators, which began in 2007. In his work ‘20 Whittington Street’ at the Camden Arts Centre, A living room carpet made from chapatti bread dough and spices heated underneath until the smell became unbearable for the audience in the gallery space, was devised for the show. Another exhibit ‘Float’, commissioned for Jerwood Open Makers in 2011; a large piece that was the result of a sequence of smaller scale works and experiments involving sound, combined clay and electricity and included his works ‘Blue Monday/White Label’ (Landmark, Bergen, 2010), ‘Brother’ (mima, Middlesbrough, 2009) and ‘Grand’ (Permanent Gallery, Brighton, 2008).
The post-war, Brutalist architectural designs of 1950’s & 60’s are a major influence on Keith’s work. He has been especially intrigued by the colourful tower blocks found at the Bustleholme Estate in West Bromwich, near where he was born. Their tiled exteriors of bright blue and yellow make these large angular structures disconcerting. Connected to this is his interest in the architecture of Berthold Lubetkin and the Tecton group. Their design’s for animal enclosures at London, Whipsnade and Dudley Zoo tap into Harrison’s curiosity at the notion of ‘social observation of captive animals as a recreational pursuit’ and how this can be aligned with the performative nature of his own work.
On these sorts of post-war ‘social experiments’, as they are often labelled, and their architectural embodiments, Harrison comments: ‘I am interested in these buildings and more generally the radical social agenda for state architecture of the 1960's relating to comprehensive schools and housing.’ The political/social agenda within the work, which is unquestionably subtle, is still a central issue. An attention on the social arrangement of predominantly working class communities, the controlling, observing and monitoring of them, is a significant focus for the artist when placing some of the work’s subjects.
Harrison states that he wants his work to have a kind of ‘monumentality’ to it. The idea of destruction is always a part of this awareness too and how such seemingly permanent object and forms are actually temporal and can often be perceived archaic relatively quickly. His work ‘Float’ is a fitting example of these principles.
Perhaps Keith's now most infamous work was the 'Bustleholme Project'. This was the final proclamation of his residency at the V&A and a continuation of his work with the band Napalm Death, who also originate from the Birmingham area. Using the band's ferocious performance, Harrison had their audio blaze out from a speaker system built and designed by him. This system, the design of which was based on the towers at the Bustleholme estate, were mass rectangular objects with a large speaker system installed inside them; their exteriors tiled in the appropriate colours and placed in the middle of the De La Warr Pavilion auditorium. Naturally the objective was to see these objects begin to fall apart during the performance, largely due to the sheer force of the music emanating from them. However, this process was also helped by an individual who managed to enter the central space where the system was situated and begin to physically attack these structures. Although made for his V&A residency, the eventual Bexhill on Sea venue used for this live performance seemed highly fitting for both Harrison and the band. The stark post-modern design of the building and the bleak seaside landscape made this a decent match for both sound and vision.
What makes Keith Harrison’s work so intriguing and refreshing is that he is using and experimenting with clay in an ostensibly different way. He wants to investigate the potential responsiveness that this material has in different situations and states, and then allow people the chance to experience first-hand the processes and results of these events. The opposing concepts of creation and destruction is crucial to these projects and his inclusion of other objects and material established factors such as sound, heat, movement, smell etc., makes Harrison’s work brave, unpredictable and overtly multifaceted.